It was a bad week for political dynasties. In Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the son of the late Governor Mario Cuomo, resigned in disgrace. In Afghanistan, America’s longest war, launched by former President George W. Bush, the son of the late President George H. W. Bush, ended in the most humiliating defeat in American history.
There is a significant difference between the two. Cuomo’s failure was one of character and morality. He and he alone is responsible. Bush initiated a well-meaning policy which ultimately failed. His successors, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden all made bad decisions along the way and deserve their share of the blame.
George W. Bush and Andrew Cuomo were elected to offices previously held by their fathers. It is unlikely that either would have gotten as far as he did without the famous last name. Both fathers were defeated in their final bids for re-election. Both sons sought to outdo their fathers. Yet the way in which they differed from their fathers helped bring them down.
Mario Cuomo was a family man. He was married to his wife, Matilda, for 60 years. They were deeply devoted and committed to each other. It is unthinkable that Mario Cuomo would have behaved with women in the way that Andrew Cuomo did.
Andrew Cuomo was married to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, for 15 years. Before getting engaged, Andrew asked friends and reporters how they thought the marriage would play in the press. While Andrew did not get along with his Kennedy in-laws, he was always present for Kennedy family events that were covered by the media and made sure to be in the pictures. He would often stress the Kennedy connection on the campaign trail. His marriage was more about getting political mileage by becoming a part of America’s most famous political family than about love.
For 14 years, Andrew Cuomo had a “committed relationship” with the celebrity TV chef, Sandra Lee. While they never married, Lee often functioned as the First Lady of New York. The couple split in 2019, issuing a statement that said they remained close friends. Some of the alleged harassment incidents in Attorney General Tish James’ report occurred while Cuomo and Lee were together.
Mario Cuomo was a man of principle. He vetoed the restoration of the death penalty 12 times as Governor. His position was highly unpopular but was based on his sincere religious beliefs. His opposition to the death penalty was a major factor in his loss to George Pataki in the 1994 election for Governor.
Andrew Cuomo, during his father’s campaign for Mayor against Ed Koch in 1977, was believed to be responsible for a flyer saying, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” As Governor, Andrew Cuomo led the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in New York. He proudly proclaimed that his efforts paved the way for the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage throughout the country. Andrew Cuomo was willing, at different times, to appeal to people’s antipathy towards homosexuals and to pose as a champion of the LGBT community, depending on what suited his political interests. That is why even people whose causes he supported often eyed him with suspicion.
Mario Cuomo sought to convince and inspire with soaring rhetoric. His speeches at the 1984 Democratic convention and at Notre Dame University were masterpieces. Whether his performance matched the rhetoric is another question. But he tried to convince people with the positive power of his ideas.
When the COVID-19 rates soared last fall, there was a strong case to be made for urging all New Yorkers to wear masks and banning large gatherings at all indoor public venues. Andrew Cuomo took the heavy-handed approach of singling out the Torah-observant Jewish community for blame and closing houses of worship while doing nothing about bars and restaurants. His approach towards our community came across as one who was looking to scapegoat and punish us rather than as someone who was genuinely concerned about our health.
Like any politician, Mario Cuomo could play hard ball. But he also had real friends. Pillars of the Queens Jewish community, like the late State Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin and the late Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz of the Hillcrest Jewish Center would have walked through a wall for him as he would have walked through a wall for them. Those friends were with him when the going got tough. When Mario Cuomo opposed Mayor Ed Koch in the 1982 primary for Governor, supporting Mayor Koch would have been the politically practical thing for people like Saul Weprin, Rabbi Mowshowitz and others to do. But they stuck with Mario Cuomo because bonds of friendship were stronger than the dictates of practical politics.
Andrew Cuomo was perceived, even 40 years ago, as a bully. He strong-armed his way to success, stabbing many people in the back along the way. People may have respected or feared him. But they recognized him for what he was, opportunistic, unprincipled, and self-centered – someone who would adopt people and causes or abandon them, based on how it suited his self-interest. As a result, when he needed friends the most, there were none to be found. Andrew Cuomo’s downfall came because the leaders of his own party, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand, Attorney General Tish James, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, and even his own handpicked Democratic State Chairman, Jay Jacobs, abandoned him.
George H. W. Bush was not an inspirational leader in the mode of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. He admitted that he fell short on “the vision thing.” He cast himself as the steady pragmatic leader who would build on the Reagan legacy. He sought incremental progress, reaching achievable goals. When Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait, Bush proclaimed, “this will not stand.” He organized an international coalition. Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait with ease. It was the greatest American military victory since World War II. Many, at the time, urged President Bush to order the troops on to Baghdad to depose Saddam Hussein. He refused. He said the mission was to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. The goal was achieved, and the mission was ended. Saddam Hussein remained in power in Baghdad and continued to oppress the Iraqi people.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush sent American forces into Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda terrorists based their operations under the protection of the Taliban regime. He would later launch the war in Iraq to oppose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, something his father had failed to do. But Bush had an even broader agenda. He sought to advance democracy around the world and hoped to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq as democracies in our image.
George W. Bush relied on many advisors in the aftermath of 9/11. His father was not one of them. The father’s belief in limited achievable goals collided with the son’s desire to remake the world.
The job of overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan was achieved rather easily. President Bush made a triumphant fighter plane landing on an aircraft carrier that had a sign bearing the words “Mission Accomplished.” That’s when the trouble started. Both countries erupted in sectarian violence.
We went into Afghanistan and Iraq thinking that we could install a temporary government that would hold elections. Power would be turned over to a democratically elected government and all would live happily ever after. Instead, all hell broke loose.
Both Afghanistan and Iraq have long histories of sectarian, tribal, and ethnic divisions that we don’t begin to understand. Real power fell into the hands of various sectarian militias and war lords. The idea that our soldiers and bureaucrats could successfully navigate the treacherous internal battlegrounds of those countries was highly unrealistic.
Four Presidents from both parties made a long series of mistakes and misjudgments about Afghanistan and Iraq. All of them should be accountable for their misjudgments. Joe Biden’s desire to end American involvement in Afghanistan is understandable. But his failure to adequately plan for the aftermath, especially for the rescue of American civilians and Afghans who supported us, is inexcusable.
Yet it was George W. Bush who launched those wars. What are the results 20 years later? Seven thousand of our bravest young men and women have lost their lives. Over $6 trillion have been spent. Most of it was borrowed through deficit spending. Our children and grandchildren will pay for these wars for generations to come.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was an evil man who oppressed his own people. But he was a bulwark against Iranian expansionism and kept the lid on sectarian violence. He has been replaced by a government that is reliant on Shiite militias, aligned with Iran, to remain in power. Iran uses Iraq to transit weapons to its proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. An empowered Iran is calling the shots in Baghdad and Damascus. It is providing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of missiles to Hezbollah and Hamas. And they are closer than ever to acquiring nuclear weapons.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime, which hosted al-Qaeda, has returned to power.
While the United States was bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, China has asserted itself on the world stage, increasing its economic, political, and military power at our expense.
There is another important difference between Andrew Cuomo and George W. Bush. The Cuomo sexual harassment scandal will have little long-range impact. Kathy Hochul will change the tenor of Albany, but there is likely to be little change in actual policy. The failure of George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have already had disastrous consequences, and their impact will be felt for many years to come.
By Manny Behar